Fruits and vegetables

Sharon Franklin of Odenton, center, shopping with her granddaughter Sahmia Brown, lower left, opted for fruit and vegetables during a visit to Lexington Market. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun / February 29, 2012)

More than a third of Baltimore neighborhoods don't have ready access to healthy foods, leaving one in five residents to rely on high-fat, high-calorie meals from corner stores and carryout restaurants, a new assessment shows.

City, academic and nonprofit officials have worked for years to eliminate so-called "food deserts," but they say the latest data from Johns Hopkins University researchers shows the scope of the problem and where good food options are most urgently needed.

"You can see on the ground that a lot of areas are lacking," said Holly Freishtat, who became Baltimore's first food policy director about two years ago. "The next step for the map is to use it for policy."

City officials and other groups already are launching programs to provide healthier eating options for Baltimoreans. They're highlighting healthy foods in city-owned markets and farmers' markets. They're trying to lure new grocery stores. And they're expanding a system for low-income residents to order healthy food online for delivery in area libraries, senior living facilities, and soon, public housing.

Over time, Freishtat said, the initiatives should eliminate food deserts — areas where a grocery store is more than a quarter-mile walk, there are few other places to buy fresh or healthy foods, the median household income is no more than 185 percent above the poverty line, and at least 40 percent of households lack access to cars.

Anne Palmer, a project director at Hopkins' Center for a Livable Future, said researchers began looking at the problem more than four years ago and drew up the first map in 2009. Until then it wasn't clear what was available in stores, restaurants and markets and what barriers there were for those wanting healthier foods.

This year's map is more specific, including, for example, the number of people without their own transportation.

Researchers also went door-to-door to check store shelves and menus around Baltimore, assigning each a score, Palmer said. Not surprisingly, groceries tended to offer the most fresh, healthy foods, while carry-out restaurants and corner stores tended to score near the bottom.

The data offers researchers a clearer picture of the problem. For example, food deserts wouldn't be a problem if everyone could drive and could afford every store's prices.

Palmer said she believes Baltimore is no different than the average metropolitan area in terms of access to healthy food. But Freishtat and others' aggressive use of the data may be unique.

"It still will take years to make changes," Palmer said. "You need to get supermarkets into neighborhoods and find other solutions."

Many people's diets will improve just because they have access to healthier foods, Palmer, Freishtat and others said. So in addition to educational programs in schools and at the city markets, officials have focused on increasing the availability of produce and other health options.

Freishtat started in Baltimore's six public markets, which offer a group of vendors under one roof. Most are located in food deserts, and though they all sell fruits, vegetables and fresh fish and poultry, surveys show about 70 percent of the vendors offer mostly less healthy carryout meals.

Ten vendors at Lexington Market recently volunteered for a program designed to feature items that are lower in calories, fat and sugar and higher in fiber than other menu choices. Managers of the self-sustaining markets agreed to pay for new menu boards that highlight those options with a green leaf icon. Eventually, the managers also will help defray the cost of new menu items offered by merchants.

So far the managers have pledged $50,000, some of which was used to hire interpreters to pitch the program to the business owners, most of whom are Korean, said Casper Genco, Lexington Market's general manager.

When the city suggested the program, Genco said, "it was evident that it was something we needed to work on."

He expects the vendors to discover which items make money through trial and error, and eventually be weaned off subsidies. Other merchants likely will add items that are popular.

"I'm not suggesting people will completely alter their diet," he said. "But I am saying that when you give a person a visual indication of an item that would be healthier than other items, at least a portion of the time people are going to choose the healthier option."

Ki Joeng, owner of the Healthy Choice stand, said he thought the new icons would influence regular customers and draw in new ones.